A few weeks ago, I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. It was typical business travel - a rather uneventful 3-hour drive, followed by a routine check-in at a generic hotel. As I handed the woman my credit card, I turned and noticed a big dry-erase board on the counter.
Handwritten in an array of bright colors, the board welcomed "Gary Galleher, our Guest of the Day!" Huh, I thought, that's kinda cool. Upon questioning, the front desk attendant told us that indeed, Gary had already checked in, and that yes, he had been excited. "They always get excited. They all get out their cellphones and take a picture." How sweet. But what does Gary get?
It turns out that Gary gets a pretty good deal. Besides seeing his name in marker, he gets an upgraded room, which I believe contains a jacuzzi tub, and a free movie rental. Oooh. The room, the tub AND the movie. I felt genuinely jealous of Gary. What a nice surprise, after a long day on the road. Not bad at all. Wish I was Guest of the Day. Oh well, his company probably paid for it or something. Maybe Gary is a CEO. Or maybe Gary stays at Holiday Inn Express every week. Maybe Gary owns Holiday Inn Express.
The incident faded as time passed. Then yesterday, I had another uneventful drive and routine check-in, this time at a Courtyard Marriott. Ho hum, another business trip. Here's my credit card and wait - what's that - is that MY name? - oh my god you guys, I'M THE GUEST OF THE DAY!!!
I literally jumped up and down. There it was, my full name on a framed piece of paper! What surprise, what delight. I felt like they knew me. I felt like a celebrity! I felt like Gary.
Of course, I immediately composed myself, in the manner of all contestants on Wheel of Fortune, preparing myself to be Shown What I've Won. I had a flash fantasy about a giant bubble bath with jets, about choosing my movie from a list of hot new releases. This trip was gonna be awesome.
So the woman smiles and hands me a bag. A small bag. A small bag with the Courtyard logo. Okay. I reach inside. A bottle of water. A bottle of shower gel. A bag of animal crackers, and a packet of Ritz crackers. That's it. "That's it?" "Oh, and this," she says, and hands me an envelope. Ooh, an envelope! Surely, this is the big finish. It's definitely gonna be a gift card to a local restaurant, a coupon for a free massage, half off my next room at the Courtyard. I open it with high hopes.
It is far and away the most generic letter I've ever read. Fully devoid of meaning. "Welcome to the Courtyard. We want to congratulate you on being our Guest of the Day." Okay, thanks, now really, what do I get? "Should you need anything during your stay, just please give us a call." Okay, but I would do that anyway! Anyone would! We can all call the front desk, at any time! How am I different? "Thank you for making Courtyard your home away from home." Where is my prize? Show me the benefit!
As it turns out, there is no benefit to being Guest of the Day at the Courtyard Marriott. The water was room temp, the shower gel was cheap, and the animal crackers were stale. (I will admit that I enjoyed the Ritz crackers, but that is my only concession here). The single joy I experienced was seeing my name on a printout.
So here's the thing. If I hadn't stayed in the Holiday Inn a few weeks back, hadn't seen Gary's name and heard about his perks, I would have been delighted and only delighted to receive the minorly special treatment that I did. Wow, a bottle of water? Hey, it's better than my coworkers got! Ha ha to them! I'm the Guest of the Day! But since I had come face-to-face with the dry erase board on that fateful night, my bar had been raised. Significantly and irreversibly. And when this experience fell drastically below that bar, I was left feeling regretful that I ever walked through the Courtyard doors.
It's unfair to pit the two hotels against each other, but hey. That's the consumer world we live in. Somebody creates a nice experience for their customers, and everyone else rushes to catch up. It's nice for the Courtyard to try, and they get a big E for effort. But man. Shower gel? Animal crackers? I have never gone so quickly from surprise and delight, to disbelief and embarassment. What a letdown. I would have preferred to get nothing over a goody bag of crap.
So a part of me wishes they would only show my name. Seeing one's name is surprisingly thrilling, and I experienced a rush of somewhat childlike joy. It's like hearing your name on the radio when you donate to NPR. It's like seeing your birthdate in print. It's something familiar and personal, celebrated in public. The fact that every Holiday Inn Guest of the Day gets out his cellphone and takes a picture? A huge indicator of the significance. It's also quite funny, and makes for a good conversation piece the next day.
In fact, I believe if more retailers incorporated this simple "hold up a mirror" strategy, shoppers would feel a tinge of interest when walking in the door. They would always think, maybe it's me!
So an open letter to the Courtyard: The little poster is plenty exciting. It's all you need to make us feel welcome. If you can't deliver a better experience than the comparable establishment down the street, don't get our hopes up. Go for something that you can execute well, now. And stop right there.